RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - The 2020 presidential election will be like none before it: In the midst of a global pandemic. The COVID-19 crisis has triggered some states to change voting procedures, both in-person and mail-in. That’s prompted concern over a potential increase in voter fraud, often from Republicans. The fear is that increased voter access - like universally mailing live ballots to everyone on the voter roll - could lead to increased fraud.
Universal mailing of ballots is not happening in Virginia.
In Virginia, mail-in ballots are technically called absentee ballots. Voters have to proactively request them by mailing in a form or going online. But in nine states and D.C., voters will not need to request a ballot first. Ballots will be mailed to the entire voter roll, to be marked and returned to the registrar as an official vote. It’s the first-time universal mail-in ballots will be sent in California, D.C., New Jersey, Nevada and Vermont.
Concern has mounted over voters who may have died or moved out of state, and haven’t yet been cleared off the voter rolls. Those voters would still get a ballot, and it’s feared that ballot could somehow be cast illegally.
In the 2016 election, 267,660 absentee mail-in ballots were counted in Virginia, according to the Department of Elections. Over 4,023 or 1.5 percent of those ballots, were rejected for a host of reasons.
Already this year, more than double the number of mail-in ballots than the entire 2016 election has already been requested in Virginia - 604,669. Experts say this election will have the most mail-in ballots ever, in Virginia and across the country.
Even though Virginians still have to request an absentee ballot, there were some changes to election rules in the Commonwealth that did cause some initial push back.
Witness signatures are no longer required on mail-in ballots, to prevent voters from having to potentially come in close contact with another person. Virginians also no longer need to indicate a reason for voting absentee.
The Virginia General Assembly further approved ballot boxes for the first time ever, which will be placed at voting sites or throughout the community, to ease the absentee ballot return process.
Some Republicans fear ballot boxes could lead to ballot harvesting, or that mass numbers of mail-in ballots could be collected and singled out by a third party (potentially someone working for a campaign), and then illegally discarded.
“We will for the first time, lose the chain of custody between a voter and the ballot box,” said Republican Virginia Senator Steve Newman during a legislative hearing.
However, Virginia now has a tracking code on each absentee ballot envelope, another change this year. Virginia voters can track their ballot to and from the registrar on the Department of Elections website. If it doesn’t get there, you can cast a provisional ballot in person. The Department of Elections is working on the new ‘ballot tracking’ section of its website, set to go live over the next few weeks.
Another change is that in-person voters don’t need a photo ID in the Commonwealth. Other forms of ID are accepted, like a utility bill. Voters who don’t have proper credentials can sign a waiver confirming their identity. However, there’s likely no way for poll workers to immediately verify that someone was lying about their identity by signing a waiver - or pull the ballot later, since ballots are not labeled with names.
“You’re signing it under the penalty of perjury. So, if you sign that statement and it turns out you’re lying, you could be punished with a felony,” said Department of Elections Commissioner Chris Piper.
The Department of Elections does a post-election audit, recounting all the ballots. But critics argue the fact that there’s still no way to tell which ballot corresponded to which voter. So even if it’s determined someone on the voter roll was impersonated, there’s no way to pull their specific ballot.
Piper says Virginia voter rolls are kept well up-to-date.
“The registrars are constantly updating their voter registration lists,” said Piper. “We have list maintenance staff who actually work getting master death file lists, as well as move lists when someone has moved from their residence... We also get adjudications and felon lists. It’s constantly being updated.”
As for the security of the new ballot boxes (making sure ballots aren’t tampered with once they’re dropped off), cameras will be set up for any boxes that don’t have an in-person election official monitoring them.
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